Several months ago, I worked with a new student for the first time. Although she was quite experienced and had obviously been extremely well trained, I noticed immediately that her spine was compressed and her head was slightly forward when she sang. We worked together to adjust her alignment, which she was able to improve immediately. At the next lesson, however, the postural issues had returned. As I always do, early on in my work with a new student, I initiated a conversation with her about her specific practice habits. She told me that she frequently vocalizes in her car, during her commute. And suddenly, a light bulb went off for both of us. She realized that her car’s headrest was pushing her head slightly forward as she sang, and the contour of her car’s seat did not encourage a lengthened spine.
During another one of these practice conversations, a different student admitted to me that she was hesitant to practice in her apartment, out of consideration for her neighbors, and consequently, was not practicing as often as she needed to be. We brainstormed other places she could practice. At my suggestion, she approached a church in her neighborhood, offering her services as a Sunday soloist in return for use of their choir room. Unfortunately, the church asked for rent, and she had to abandon this plan. But instead, she began to schedule practice sessions at home more carefully, when she knew that her neighbors would not be disturbed, and she made keeping to that schedule a priority.
Both of these students learned that the spaces in which they practiced were having an effect on that practice. In the first case, the student’s “practice room” (her car) affected the quality of her practice. In the second case, the student’s quantity of practice was affected. In my experience, these types of practice space issues are quite common, and are often not investigated or directly addressed.
What about your “practice room”? Think about the last time you practiced. Where were you? Were you in your house, maybe in your living room? Were you at school, maybe in a practice room? Were you in your car? What equipment was available to you there? (Did you use a piano or keyboard? Was there a mirror in the room? Recording equipment?) Were there distractions inherent in the space? (Were your children or roommates in the next room? Was your phone resting on the piano?) What was the acoustic like? How did the space make you feel?
If you were in a small room, or in a room with a low ceiling, did you feel your singing was restrained in any way? If you had roommates, family members, or neighbors who might overhear you, did you try (maybe subconsciously) to “keep it down”? If you could overhear other singers (as in a practice building), did their singing inspire you, distract you, or make you feel competitive or inadequate? If you were in a room with a live acoustic, did you relax (either helpfully or inappropriately) and let the room do some of the work for you? If you don’t always practice in the same space, do you seem to have better practice sessions in some spaces than in others?
Or perhaps, like my second student, you struggled even to find a space in which you felt free to practice at all! If you are a music student at a university or conservatory, with practice rooms at your disposal, could you find a free room when you wanted one? If you were not able to practice in your home (because of neighbors, etc.), where did you go?
The issue of the acoustics in our practice space is a particularly important one for classical singers to investigate. In small, acoustically dry spaces, we can be tempted to oversing, as we attempt to get more aural feedback. In large, acoustically live spaces, we must avoid undersinging or losing our body connection, as we begin to rely on the room or hall itself to become a powerful resonator. Since we will all have to sing in a variety of spaces during our careers (for auditions especially), it behooves us to learn to cope with the challenges—both psychological and physiological—that are posed by different acoustics. Above all, we must learn to feel, in order to help us evaluate more accurately what we hear. We know that what we hear while we sing is not the same as what a listener is hearing, and can sometimes be dramatically different. As spaces change, along with the aural feedback they enhance or reduce, part of our constant must be the sensations of balance and coordination that we have developed in our practice.
So here is today’s practice challenge. Identify one thing that you could do to improve your practice space. The improvement might be an actual change of location (e.g., practice in the living room instead of in the car). It might be an issue of timing (e.g., more carefully schedule a practice time at home while roommates will be at work). It might be a new variety of place (e.g., practice once a week in a large or acoustically live space, like the church sanctuary or school auditorium). It might be as simple as bringing a mirror into your practice space, or removing your phone from it.
Please share your questions or successes with regard to practice space. Happy practicing!